HL Deb 23 March 1990 vol 517 cc513-40

11.38 a.m.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

The Bill is a modest measure to change and to reform the way in which Members of the European Parliament are elected. First, I must point out that in the Bill as it stands two errors have been drawn to my attention. The noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, and the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, have told me that the references to the European Assembly are incorrect. The correct term is now the European Parliament— a change brought about by the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1986, on the coming into force of the Single European Act on 1st July 1987. That is how the Bill was first drafted. It was only on expert advice that "European Parliament" was changed to "European Assembly". It is clear that the advice was wrong and I shall be happy to change it back again in Committee.

Secondly, in Clause 11 the House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Act 1949 and the House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Act 1958 are mentioned. They were repealed and re-enacted in the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986. That will also have to be changed in Committee. I apologise to your Lordships for those errors.

Perhaps I may make it clear at the beginning that the measure does not in any way alter the way that Members of Parliament are elected to the House of Commons. It is designed to provide the European Parliament with the maximum legitimacy and authority, which in my view is the best answer to those who are fearful of the powers of the Brussels bureaucracy, as they call it.

Secondly, it is an attempt to introduce a system that cor forms more closely with Article 138 of the Treaty of Rome, which states: The [European Parliament] shall draw up proposals for elections by direct universal suffrage in accordance with a uniform procedure in all Member States". As it Stands, the existing British system is totally out of line with any electoral system used elsewhere on the Continent to elect Members of the European Parliament. First, the United Kingdom elects its MPs, rather eccentrically, by two totally different systems; one for Great Britain and the other for Northern Ireland. The system for Northern Ireland is proportional and uses the single transferable vote system. The system for Great Britain is first past the post, and in that it is unique. Those used in all other member states are proportional in one form or another, thereby ensuring that seats won broadly match the votes cast. The Bill simply transfers the system used in Northern Ireland to the rest of Great Britain.

The shortcomings of the first-past-the-post system were vividly demonstrated at the last European election. For once it was the Conservative Party which suffered from the disproportionate unfairness that the system always brings. In that election the Conservative vote dropped by 5–2 per cent. from 38–8 per cent. to 33–6 per cent. However, the party lost 13 seats out of 45; that is nearly a 29 per cent. loss of seats for a 5 per cent. loss of vote.

It was not only the Conservative Party which suffered from the system; all the voters throughout Great Britain also suffered. Of the 78 British European MPs, 53 were voted against by the majority of their constituents. That is an astonishing state of affairs. Throughout Scotland and Wales Conservative voters were totally disenfranchised. Throughout southern England, excluding Bristol and London, Labour voters were disenfranchised. Throughout Great Britain Green and Alliance voters were disenfranchised. It is difficult to justify a system which produces such wildly eccentric results.

Nor are the ordinary objections to proportional representation relevant in this case. The European Parliament does not elect an Executive and the nature of its proceedings are consensual rather than adversarial. It is to that kind of Parliament that a proportional system is particularly well adapted.

The proportional representational system which I have chosen is the single transferable vote. However, the Bill is so constructed that Parliament can approve the principles of proportional representation in regional constituencies without committing itself to the single transferable vote system. Other options are open for consideration and it is important that that should be taken on board.

I have opted for the single transferable vote for a number of reasons. First, it is used in Northern Ireland and there is a certain elegance in transferring a system used in one part of the country to the rest of the country. Secondly, under the system each elector can indicate his preference between candidates and parties. He can discriminate between candidates whatever their party and that is desirable. He can also escape the diktat of the party machine which is the weakness of the list system. Finally, as in all proper proportional systems, he need never waste his vote.

The Bill in no way alters the number of Members of the European Parliament. There remain 66 from England, eight from Scotland, four from Wales and three from Northern Ireland. However, we propose to create single constituencies for Scotland and Wales and nine for England. The boundaries of those constituencies will be settled on a shire basis by the Boundaries Commission allowing public inquiries on the publication of its recommendations. There is no change in the procedures for by-elections. Under a single transferable vote system a by-election becomes an alternative vote election.

Such are the bare bones of the Bill. I trust that it will commend itself to your Lordships. I have called it a "modest measure" and so it is. I believe that if it is passed it will have important consequences. It will make the European Parliament, which is of growing importance, more representative. In my view, it will make the European Parliament more accessible to the citizens of Europe. One hopes that it will increase the turnout at European elections in this country from the shocking 35–9 per cent. on the last occasion. It is not without significance that in Northern Ireland the turnout was then 47–7 per cent. The Bill will be of importance in strengthening the consensual politics of the European Community which are of fundamental importance. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.— (Lord Bonham-Carter.)

11.46 a.m.

Lord Cockfield

My Lords, I support the Bill, but I do not propose to debate the merits or demerits of proportional representation as such. What we do here in Westminster is not a necessary or valid precedent for what we might or should do in the case of the European Parliament. The two institutions are entirely different: they have a different constitutional base; they operate in a different way, and their powers are quite different.

The first point I wish to make in support of the proposal is that the European Community is not simply a trading entity; it is a community. That comes out most clearly in the terms of the founding treaties. Thus in 1952 the Treaty of Paris referred to: establishing… a broader and deeper community among people". The Treaty of Rome referred to a determination: "to lay the foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe".

It is interesting to note that both quotations refer to the peoples of Europe but not to the member states. Perhaps that is a different issue.

The concept of a community has been extended and deepened over the years by a succession of developments in the European Community, including not least the Single European Act which established economic and social cohesion as one of the policies of the Community. If one has a community one expects, and one is entitled to expect, a certain consistency in the structure, framework and laws of that community. Normally we should expect to see a certain consistency between the laws of the three or four countries which make up the United Kingdom. It is not unreasonable to expect a consistency in the way in which members of the European Parliament are elected in the different member states of the Community. Indeed, when it was first decided that members of the European Parliament should be elected by universal suffrage instead of being appointed, it was envisaged and provided that there should be a uniform electoral procedure.

That procedure is subject to unanimity. I am well aware of the fact that some people— particularly our Government— tend to regard unanimity as a right of veto. In fact, that was never the intention of unanimity and is not the way that that is commonly regarded in the other member states. The purpose of unanimity is to allow all member states to proceed together; that is, to make progress towards an agreed objective and not to veto progress towards that objective.

Not all but most Community legislation— for example, the treaties— are couched in general terms. They provide a framework which then has to be filled in by subordinate legislation in the form of regulations, directives or decisions. The fact that they require unanimity does not mean that one or even more than one member state is really entitled to stop progress towards the agreed objective by refusing to agree on the basis of a unanimity rule. The position now is that we have 11 member states which have, broadly speaking, a form of proportional representation. At present the European Parliament is trying to reach an agreed position on a broad system which would bring together the voting procedures of the various member states. This Bill supports that movement.

There is one other important point which I should like to make which was touched upon by the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter. I should like to make it quite clear that I am not raising this point in a purely party political way because the same point can arise on other elections and can move in the opposite direction. One may very well ask— and no doubt the point will be argued— why should not the British stick to their own peculiar and individual system and why should we have to come into line with what other people do as it is only a matter which concerns the United Kingdom? That is not true at all. The European Parliament does not operate at all on the basis of national representatives. It both sits and works broadly on the basis of political parties in the same way as we do in this House and in the other place. You have the two great groups— the Socialist group and the Christian Democratic group— with members drawn from virtually every member state. There are then a number of smaller groups; for example, the Communists, the French Liberals, the British Conservatives, the National Front and the Greens. Broadly speaking. Parliament operates on the basis of a Socialist group and a broadly Conservative or Christian Democrat group.

The effect of the last election was that the very big swing between the Conservative and Labour Party, coupled with the effect of our own first-past-the-post system, was to give the majority to the Socialist parties in the European Parliament. It is really ironic that the campaign which was conducted on the lines laid down by the Prime Minister should have resulted not only in the loss of a number of Conservative seats but should also have resulted in the election of a socialist European Parliament. I do not put that as a party political point because it can quite easily go in the opposite direction. However, it therefore follows that what we do in this country is of importance not only to ourselves but also to the people in the other 11 member states.

Finally, I know that from time to time things happen in the European Parliament which result in considerable criticism both in the media and elsewhere. Of course, the European Parliament is not unique in that respect. That that happens should not blind us to the fact that there are many extremely good members in the European Parliament who are both far-sighted and hard working. They do an effective job. Increasingly over the years the European Parliament has played a more effective and constructive part in the affairs of the Comnmnity.

Quite frankly, in 1985 I was rather concerned when the powers of the European Parliament were increased in relation to the single European market. I envisaged the possibility of all kinds of difficulties arising in the Parliament. That never occurred at all and the Parliament has done and continues to do a very good and constructive job in relation to the internal market programme. It has also, both there and elsewhere, performed the extremely valuable function which your Lordships' House has in acting as a revising chamber and improving the quality of European legislation. It is on all those grounds that I strongly support the Bill as proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter.

11.56 a.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Eonham-Carter, made a very good case for his Bill and I was extremely interested in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, based on his experience and his deep knowledge of this subject. For me, the major argument in favour of making this change in relation to our electoral system for the European elections is that under the Treaty of Rome there was a requirement that there should be a common electoral system for the European Parliament. In my view that means that this particular change in our electoral system is something which belongs entirely to the European argument rather than to the general arguments about changing our electoral system here.

When one looks at all the changes and all the forms of integration and greater unification between the systems of the member countries of Europe, this very minor change rather pales besides those economic changes with which we shall be faced in 1992. That makes us look at this Bill in a very particular way.

It is also important to look back to 1977 when there was a Bill for which my right honourable friend Merlyn Rees was responsible. In April 1977 there was a White Paper which looked very hard at the different options. It contained a passage of great interest which said: Since the European Assembly does not constitute a legislature or provide a government, and since its members do not have the same constituency responsibilities as a Westminster MP, proportional representation for the European Assembly might not be open to the same objections as proportional representation for the Westminster Parliament. A different institution might warrant a different form of election". When it came to the Committee stage of that Bill, that particular option was jettisoned. Nevertheless, it existed and I think that many people were not happy about the European Assembly Elections Act 1978 which is the Act which the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, now wishes to amend.

It is also very sad to look back at the failed attempts by the European Parliament to bring about some kind of harmonisation. For example, after the 1979 elections, which used national electoral systems, the newly elected parliament referred the question to the political affairs committee. Although its report was adopted by the European Parliament in 1982, it was not adopted by the Council of Ministers. The reason, it was believed, was that Britain objected to the principle of PR and the Irish objected to a party list system.

There were then the 1984 elections and the matter was again referred to the political affairs committee of the new parliament. The same thing happened; the committee's report was published and discussed, but no agreement was reached. The 1989 elections were held, again using national systems. The issue was once again referred to a committee, but this time to the institutional affairs committee. One is tempted to ask whether this attempt is more likely to succeed than its predecessors over the past 10 years. One may think that it is not very likely.

As the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, said, every other country uses a proportional representation system. I am impressed that even France, which is not currently using a PR system to elect its National Assembly, uses one for the European elections. As the noble Lord said, that means that Britain is the odd man out. We use STV for Northern Ireland's representatives. That is a major strength that he pointed to. In this Bill we can follow the example of the European elections in Northern Ireland which worked very well.

The noble Lord pointed out the anomalies which came to light, especially in the 1989 election. Perhaps I may make the point even more strongly in another way. There are 33 European elections north and south of a line from the Severn to the Wash. In 1989 south of that line the Conservatives polled 41.8 per cent. of the votes, obtaining 25 of the 33 seats. The Labour Party obtained the remaining eight seats, seven coming from Greater London. North of that line the Labour Party polled 48–7 per cent. of the votes and obtained 26 of the 33 seats, the Conservatives taking the remaining seven. That puts a stronger aspect on the anomalies that the noble Lord described.

In conclusion, I see many advantages in the noble Lord's Bill. First, it complies with the Treaty of Rome. Secondly, it provides a more democratic system whereby the electorate is given the widest possible choice. Thirdly, it has been tried in Northern Ireland where it seems to provide a reasonably proportionate result. Fourthly, there is a great simplicity about it. That is a great strength. Most importantly, it does not interfere with either the mania of those who wish for electoral reform throughout Britain or the paranoia of those who will not even contemplate changing our electoral system. This Bill charts a safe course between the two.

Finally— dare I say it— such a system might give women a better chance of obtaining representation in the European elections. I hope the Government will look seriously at this Bill.

12.4 p.m.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, this Bill is of limited impact and I venture to support it. Its limited impact has been argued in cogent and most informative speeches that preceded mine; but though of limited impact if raises wider questions in relation to parliamentary democracy. A generally accepted description of democratic society is that a society is democratic not if but in so far as the mass of the people can influence the decisions that affect their own lives.

Our own system, though imperfectly, enables the mass of people in the sense of the majority of people, through their representatives in Parliament, to influence decisions that affect their lives. However, increasingly questions are asked about the interests of minorities. Undoubtedly, our system of first-past-the-post does not, on the face of it at any rate, adequately provide for the minorities having a proportionate and proper influence on the decisions that affect their lives.

Electoral representation is not the only way of securing that influence. Our traditional way has been tolerance and consideration of the interests of minorities without any legislative or electoral entrenchment. Moreover, the interests of minorities are probably better safeguarded by a bill of rights entrenching individual rights. I, like many other noble Lords, wish to see that come about and to be an entrenchment in our constitution.

There is also another way, which was expressed admirably by a practical statesman. Lord Attlee, who said that democracy is not merely rule by the majority but majority rule with deference to the interests of minorities. It can hardly be questioned that the system proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, and so ably supported by subsequent speakers vindicates the interests of minorities, particularly central minorities.

There is only one other point I wish to make. Our system undoubtedly provides decisive government. However, it does that at the risk of very violent tacks in policy. One particularly notices that with the prevailing "Butskellism" over so many decades. The Prime Minister's prestige and popularity are not at their height at the moment, but it would be extremely unjust not to recognise the courage, determination and skill with which she wrested round the tiller when the ship of state was diverging so widely from a centre line. Undoubtedly the type of representation which this Bill advocates will minimise those wide gaps and enable the ship of state to proceed more centrally, more gyroscopically, particularly when the wind is not ahead of the beam.

12.8 p.m.

Lord Blake

My Lords, your Lordships will not be surprised when I say that I support the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, and urge your Lordships to give a Second Reading to this Bill. I was chairman of the Hansard Society Commission on Electoral Reform which reported in 1976 and which recommended proportional representation for parliamentary elections and also for Euro elections, which at that time had not taken place. I am currently president of the Electoral Reform Society and of Conservative Action for Electoral Reform. Therefore, when I say that I support the Bill some people might reply, "He would, wouldn't he?" I am sure, however, that your Lordships are far too courteous to say that, even if you thought it.

There are strong arguments for a proportional system in national and local elections. A few years ago I brought in a Bill on proportional representation for local elections which your Lordships were kind enough to pass. Of course, it sank without trace in another place but at least it went through this House. However, we are not concerned with those issues. There are even stronger arguments for proportional representation in Euro-elections. In national elections the case against proportional representation has always been that it could produce hung parliaments and wobbly coalition governments— Italy, Holland and Israel are often cited. That actually depends on what form of proportional representation is adopted, but it is not relevant in the context we are now discussing.

The electorate is not, as has been said, voting to sustain an existing or alternative government. It is voting for a delegate to sit in a representative assembly. It is a sounding board, in some ways, as to the opinions of the various nation states. The Hansard Society Commission actually favoured what is called the alternative member system for national elections, though most of us were only marginally in favour of that rather than the single transferable vote. Personally, I would have gone along with either. In this context I would prefer the single transferable vote, if only because we already have it for Euro-elections in Northern Ireland and the process of extending it to the rest of the United Kingdom would be comparatively simple. In fact, I do not believe any of the EC countries have adopted the additional member system for Euro-elections; not even the German Federal Republic.

As the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, said, the Bill is so constructed that Parliament can approve the principle of proportional representation without necessarily being committed to the single transferable vote. It could adopt some kind of list system if it wanted to do so. The real point is to get rid of the first-past-the-post system in this context. Whatever the arguments for it nationally, it is an indefensible system for Europe. Sooner or later we will have to adopt some brand of proportional representation for these elections.

It is perfectly true that all 11 other European countries each elect Euro-MPs under a slightly different system, but all of them are variants within the broad category of proportional representation; that is, the number of seats corresponds approximately to the number of votes cast. Our first-past-the-post system sticks out like a sore thumb. We will be under increasing pressure as the years go by to join not a uniform system— that may never come— but a group of systems all of which converge in the direction of some form of proportional representation.

I am in favour of this Bill not only because, as my noble friend Lord Cockfield pointed out, of its effect on other countries in Europe but also for the sake of fairness to ourselves. It is not merely a matter of giving way to pressure from outside. The case for having fair and proper representation of ourselves in the European Parliament is, to my mind, overwhelming. I very much hope that the Bill will be given a Second Reading.

12.14 p.m.

Lord Pitt of Hampstead

My Lords, in common with all the previous speakers, I am in favour of this Bill. It is right that this country should be properly represented in the European Parliament. It is right that, since all the other countries in the European Comnunity use some form of proportional representation, this country should do the same. I also believe that since we have already accepted the principle of the single transferable vote for Northern Ireland, it is simple to extend it to the rest of the United Kingdom.

Moreover, we use the single transferable vote for electing members from universities and in organisations with which I have had some connection. In the General Medical Council, for example, doctors elect their members by the single transferable vote. That has had the effect of having half a dozen overseas doctors on the General Medical Council, which we did not have previously. Therefore, the question of the value of this form of representation in terms of looking after minorities has been proved by the results obtained where it has been used.

I also believe that it is important to recognise that, as the noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, pointed out, we are electing to the Community and, what is more important, after the election there is a grouping within the European Parliament which is on political lines. Therefore, it is right that our representatives should, in fact, be politically representative of the United Kingdom. In the first-past-the-post form of elections they are not. Therefore, that is an additional reason for adopting some form of proportional representation. As I said, the single transferable vote seems to be the most logical for such an election. I very much hope that the Bill will receive a fair wind in this House.

12.17 p.m.

Lord Holderness

My Lords, one of the remarkable features of this debate so far is its unanimity. I became: increasingly interested in electoral reform before I became a member of the Hansard Society Commission on Electoral Reform under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Blake. As he pointed out, the commission did not in fact espouse the system of a single transferable vote but it chose the system allowing the co-option of certain additional members which was naturally strongly opposed— and has been ever since— by all who are convinced that elected members should be attached to a territorial constituency.

I remember the critics being particularly shocked by the possible co-option of candidates who had been defeated in a constituency at a recent election. The opponents also shrank, and continue to shrink, from a system which manifestly attaches more attention to the concept of justice than to the kind of government which that system would create. I remember that alarming pictures were drawn during our discussions of uneasy coalitions which were brought to birth with difficulty after possibly questionable deals in rooms which for some reason are always described as "smoke-filled rooms". I imagine that in these days of comparative abstinence, the smoke would be rather less; but that does not affect the argument.

I admit that the critics' case had, and continues to have, a considerable amount of weight. Certainly, the most recent experience in this country of a coalition with the Lib-Lab pact did not inspire enormous confidence; nor did it reduce fears of even less desirable arrangements in the future. I am drawn to the conclusion that whatever its complexion, a government elected under the first-past-the-post system seems to carry more weight, even among its opponents, than the rather fortuitous collection of political parties and men and women which no one on the eve of an election can precisely foresee.

Moreover, hard as it is to hold together members of a single party— as we have seen on various occasions in fairly recent times— it must be much more difficult in the case of a coalition of two or more parties with no shared political philosophy. These criticisms, as I have done my best to point out, seem to have weight in the context of any system which is designed to choose a national or possibly a local government. But they seem to have very little relevance in relation to the European Parliament which, in the opinion of most people, looks unlikely to enjoy or to provide executive power in the foreseeable future.

The system proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, would create no kind of government whether strong or weak. Therefore, the criterion of justice, in the context of European elections, seems to deserve far more attention than the opponents of electoral reform have been willing to give it in relation to elections leading to the formation of a British Government. I am bound to admit that justice is a quality which the present system is quite unable to claim, not that the major parties have any great cause for complaint.

My own party enjoyed a considerable bonus in the first of the elections when it won three-quarters of the seats with half the number of votes cast. Last year, the Labour Party also gained rather more seats than strict electoral mathematics would afford it. I find it extremely difficult to defend a system, where no question of electing a government arises, which denies one single seat to a party winning nearly one-fifth (one-in-five) of the popular vote, particularly when that system provides a seat to a party which won fewer than one in 50 of the votes merely because those votes happen to be, fortunately, concentrated geographically.

I shall be most interested, as will all noble Lords, at the attitude of my noble friend when he comes to reply. I do not know what line he is going to take. I hope that he will not rely too much on arguments about thin edges of wedges because a firm Northern Irish wedge, as we all know, is firmly in the door already. I cannot see any threat to my noble friend's position— if he resists proportional representation in general in this rather limited move to elect English, Scots and Welsh Members of the European Parliament— by a method of election comparable to that which already elects Members from Ulster. Therefore, I should like to give my support to the Bill.

12.23 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, Friday is always a good day on which to debate electoral reform. This morning, following yesterday's by-election, we have had the advantage of seeing our electoral system in action. Another fact that we also find on a Friday in these circumstances is that certain noble Lords are disposed to celebrate the victory of those whom they favour by wearing a highly-coloured tie which has a political notation. I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Holderness, was joining in the conventional practice of celebrating the victory of a candidate at a by-election. I have only one red tie. I would never have bought it because it is much too red for me. It was given to me. I asked myself this morning whether I should put it on. I am not wearing it. When I looked at it this morning I thought that it would be misunderstood if I turned up wearing a red tie. I have never arrived in your Lordships' House at any time wearing a red tie. That is nothing to do with politics, it is really a matter of personal taste.

The speeches this morning have all been in support of the Bill. I shall do the same. I have been a member and vice-president of the electoral reform movement for many years. There are some movements which one belongs to and one wonders if they are ever going to see their objectives realised. My father was a most active supporter of the daylight-saving movement. Conservative Britain was very slow indeed to see the advantages of that. However, all at once, when the war came, we adopted the system, and we have never left it.

The movement under discussion requires some popular will, and some force behind it. We know what the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, would say if there were enough electoral backing for this change in our electoral system. Why is it that we do not get a more rapid appreciation of the relevance of a change in our electoral system? One reason is that, although the British people have a highly-developed sense of fairness and probably know before most governments what is fair and what is not, in some areas of public matters the British people have a completely blind spot. They seem to be unable to recognise the unfairness of what they are considering every day.

I do not want to introduce the poll tax into the debate this morning. However, those who recognise unfairness in one form of taxation are failing to recognise a great deal of unfairness in others. That is what the situation is. We shall soon have to change in order to be contemporary in parliamentary affairs in Europe and in our appreciation of what is meant by representative democracy. Most interesting speeches have been made this morning. The combination of them all, except mine, might well form part of a report of a seminar. The speeches dealt with some of the points which have been hindrances to the acceptance of the case for electoral change.

The noble Lord whom we have to watch this morning, since he has the right of reply, is my noble friend Lord Underhill. If I remember rightly, he has always been an opponent of a change in our electoral system, at least in the introduction of proportional representation. He has been a practitioner in electoral matters for many years, and he knows all the snags of systems. That is always a very good thing because sometimes snags in systems prove to be very serious obstacles to the general acceptance of change.

We had elections in Europe some months ago and what happened was quite shameful. The Government put up the price of failure in the election by introducing regulations to increase the amount of deposit necessary for candidates in those elections. I believe I am right in saying that, for parliamentary elections in England and Wales, the deposit is still £ 500. But it was raised to £ 750 between one election and another and then raised to £ 1,000 for candidates for the European elections. This was done supposedly to discourage frivolous candidature. However, the Greens polled 15 per cent. of the vote but did not win a seat.

In fact all of our 87 seats in the European Assembly have been divided between the two main parties. As the noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, pointed out, that is not only unfair here but it is undesirable there. It influences and distorts the political composition of the European Assembly. We have pushed into the European Assembly an element of representation which is alien to its own and which distorts the ultimate result. We shall have to come into line with Europe very soon if we are to continue to be bearable to our European friends in the matter of elections.

An important point was made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale. There was probably a time when election results represented broadly the political trend of the nation. They provided a government not necessarily wholly representative but broadly so, with a tolerance which governments were expected to show towards minorities. In total they provided stable and responsible government. That cannot be said to apply today. We are not working a system designed for this generation. It is an inheritance. It began in the days when there were only about 800 votes to count. In Rotten boroughs there were not even as many votes as that. Under this system the person who receives the most votes is elected. Moreover, this system was in operation when those who received votes were nominated and controlled candidates. Even Gladstone could not stand as a Conservative candidate in his first constituency of Newark until he had the blessing of the Duke of Newcastle. That is how it was then. Why should one bother about the method of voting when one knew that one had to wait for the votes to come out of somebody's pocket?

This inheritance has become tired. It is kept going only because the media and probably the sporting instincts of the British people like to see a contest. They are absolutely bent on winners. What seems to be important is who will win and who will lose. That happens in every shread of reformation in our affairs. It happens in fiscal matters, in philosophical matters and in all other matters in which one can generate some sense of personal interest. That is not good enough for today.

The noble Lord, Lord Pitt of Hampstead, made some interesting points. Some sections of our community will not concede representation of their interests to someone not of their section of the comnunity. After all, why do we want women in Parliament? Men can represent the interests of women perfectly well. Why bother to put women there? That is what many men thought for a very long time. But women said that they wanted to be there. Indeed the only really representative body that many of us know is the one of which we are members. That is what women wanted. Now other sections of our community want to see themselves in Parliament. We must adjust our system to make it more representative.

Does our system produce the results that we want? Does It produce stable government and all the rest of it? Does it smack of firm government? Oh, that smack of firm government! Where is the smack of firm government? It rests on a large majority in the elected chamber. There is sometimes no sign of it. I remind noble Lords that the Bill in 1911 under which we lost our full powers and became subject to a humiliating veto was passed by a Parliament in which the Government did not have a majority. They had to rely on 40 Irish Nationalists to get through a Bill to clip the wings of your Lordships' House That is a shameful episode in our history. No wonder noble Lords never refer to it. No one ever goes back to those days. It is passed over. When I called a Division on the Third Reading of the Finance Bill, the Chief Whip rushed over to me and said, "Douglas, that is not done here". I knew that very well. That shows the reticence of the House in regard to some of the origins of its present condition.

The question of whether government can be firm depends on whether they are representative. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, once gave an address on why British governments become unpopular so soon after they have been elected. The answer is that they were never representative from the start; they were never representative of the people from the beginning. Even in the landslide victory this morning the winning candidate received less than 50 per cent. of the vote. A by-election is pending sadly in, a Labour stronghold where the late Member of Parliament still had less than 50 per cent. of the vote.

Then; are other crudities about our electoral system. The noble Lord, Lord Holderness, referred to people in international company feeling a sense of representativeness. But we do not have a representative Parliament, and that is why we do not have a representative government. Governments will derive their strength from support. Coalition governments are not to be despised. After all, we have to have them in time of war. Europe has them all the time. There is nothing to show that they are a model which we should not follow. We would probably have a greater sense of responsibility in political affairs and it would lead to better results.

We suffer from a constant sharpening of political differences on every issue. We are told that there must be another point of view and that it must be sharply expressed. It is said that there must be no grey areas in British politics because people are colour blind. In those circumstances we have an entirely misleading condition in our politics. People outside go about their daily tasks, their leisure and so on. For a large part of the time they do not bother about what Parliament is saying.

That is enough to be going on with. The Bill should herald renewed support from the House although we are not directly interested. I am quite sure that if we stood for election many of us would be elected. I am happy to see that there is movement inside the Labour Party. If we make a score I put it as follows: first, we have proportional representative in Northern Ireland; secondly, if we set up regional assemblies for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, they will have proportional representation. Much more to the point, when this House is reformed, and noble Lords stand for election, we shall be elected by PR. That is the promise in what we have heard. I have no information about the matter, but that is what we are likely to receive. We shall have PR for Northern Ireland, PR for regional assemblies and PR for the reformed Upper House. Surely we shall not leave England, the Home Counties and the rest of it to operate under the old system in those circumstances.

There is also a strong movement among the rank and file for this change. In my view that is a good sign. We must get rid of these shadowy fears about the state of government. The state of government will depend upon the will of the people. It is extraordinarily difficult for governments to continue in office and say that they have authority if people are showing by their voting in by-elections that they do not want it that way at all. You cannot have it all ways; there is no perfect solution in human affairs. However, I think that your Lordships are likely to find one if we plod along for long enough.

Baroness Phillips

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I may as a chauvinistic Englishwoman suggest that winning and losing is certainly not peculiar to us. I recommend that he should go to an international football match where he will see that the Europeans carry out exactly the same systems as we do. Of course every nation wants winners, but they know there will always have to be losers.

12.41 p.m.

Lord Monson

My Lords, I should begin by apologising for the fact that my name does not appear on the speakers' list. I did in fact put my name forward at 7 o'clock yesterday evening, but a slip-up seems to have occurred as sometimes happens. However, I shall be fairly brief.

The noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, introduced the Bill with his customary conviction and eloquence. Unlike him, and unlike most other noble Lords who have spoken thus far, I am decidedly not an enthusiast for PR across the board. For a number of reasons, of which the unhappy examples of Greece and Israel comprise only a few, I certainly do not believe that proportional representation is in any way appropriate for elections to our House of Commons.

The case for PR for elections to the European Assembly or European Parliament is much more finely balanced; indeed, I believe that the balance may tilt in the direction of the noble Lord's Bill, or some modification thereof. For example, I do not really believe that the Scots of the Highlands and Islands and the Borders feel that their interests coincide with those of the Scots of Strathclyde. However, that is a matter which will have to be dealt with at a later stage— that is, if we get that far.

One problem so far as concerns this country is that the question is bedevilled by the British electorate's habit of using European elections in the same way as it uses parliamentary by-elections; in other words, they are used as occasions for registering a mid-term protest vote, sometimes a mid-term frivolous protest vote, as is its privilege. Heaven help us if we ever became as staid and unfrivolous as the Germans or the Swiss. Nevertheless, there is no reason to suppose that this habit of the British electorate would in general produce more eccentric results under proportional representation than under the existing first-past-the-post system. One remembers, for example, the European election— I cannot remember which one it was— which resulted in the Labour Party finishing up with practically no seats at all, despite the strong support it had in numerical terms in the country.

In constituencies in which seven or eight candidates are to be elected, there would be a good chance that one or more of them might turn out to be an independent. What could be more desirable than that? The electorate might also be able to choose between pro-federalist and anti-federalist Conservatives. That is a development devoutly to be desired. It might even be able to choose between a pro-federalist and an anti-federalist Liberal, if such a rare bird existed.

Additionally, there is the example of Northern Ireland, as the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, pointed out in his opening speech. I believe he said, if I understood him correctly, that what applies to one part of the country should also apply to other parts of the country. I wholeheartedly endorse that view. Indeed, the same point was made by the noble Lords, Lord Blake, Lord Pitt of Hampstead and Lord Holderness.

One observes from one's calculations that the Bill in effect proposes that there should be 718,000 electors per English MEP; 709,000 per Welsh MEP; 639,000 per Scottish MEP; and 525,000 per Northern Ireland MEP. That shows a slight bias in favour of Scotland and Ulster, but this is not out of line with present practice. However, it is that aspect— namely, the number of electors per MEP— which leads me to the main point of my intervention this morning.

Time and again I have complained in this House about the undemocratic composition of the European Parliament with, for example, Luxembourg being allotted six times as many seats as it would be entitled to on a per capita basis; the Republic of Ireland with two and a half times as many seats as it would be entitled to on a per capita basis; while conversely France, West Germany, the United Kingdom and Italy are under-represented. I believe that it is only in respect of Spain that the position is about right. In other words, a vote cast in Luxembourg is worth 11 times as much as a vote cast in France or the United Kingdom and an Irish vote is worth three times as much as an Italian vote.

So long as the European Parliament remained essentially a talking shop that situation may not have mattered. But the moment it starts to exert increasing control over all of our lives, it begins to matter very much indeed. The whole issue will obviously come to a head with the reunification of Germany. It is inconceivable that a reunited Germany within the EC would be content with a mere 81 seats when even now, before reunification, it would be entitled to 90 or 91 seats on a strict per capita basis.

Whenever I have raised this matter previously I have been met with nothing but evasion— I imagine embarrassed evasion— from the Government Benches. But the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, does not sit on those Benches. I am sure that I can count on him either to give a spirited defence of the present undemocratic allocation of seats between the various member states of the EC, or, better still, in view of the pending accession to the Community of East Germany, followed closely, one imagines, by Austria, Malta, and possibly other Eastern European countries, to propose a much more democratic and representative alternative.

12.47 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead

My Lords, a person winding up a debate in favour of the proposition is normally expected to have the opportunity to reply to the arguments which have been deployed against the Bill. My difficulty is that if there are to be arguments against the Bill they will be put forward after I have spoken, because they have not been mentioned thus far. They may come from the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, or from the Minister of State, but not I hope too strongly, if at all, from either of them. But, regarding those noble Lords who spoke before me, they have been unanimous in their cogency and in their support for the Bill, and they have been widely spread throughout the House.

I shall begin by making a concession to those who are cynical or sceptical or determined defenders of the status quo however indefensible it may be. No electoral system for the election of any representative body can ever be perfect. The only perfect solution is not to elect representatives but to have everyone sitting in the parliament, assembly or whatever it may be. But that would also be open to disadvantages. However, that does not mean that some systems are not a great deal better than others. It certainly does not absolve us from the duty of trying to get the fairest system possible. In the absence of any strong contrary arguments, that must surely be the one which produces elected representatives who most nearly represent the views of those who elected them to be their representatives. Certain contrary arguments can exist, though I do not think they apply to this Bill.

In relation to the House of Commons— although I think its strength is sometimes exaggerated— there is the argument that this must give way to a substantial extent to the desire for strong coherent government. We have seen examples of strong, coherent government in the past few days under the other system. However, while one can exaggerate the degree of enforcement given to that argument, it must be recognised as an argument of some validity. As has been pointed out several times, clearly that does not apply to elections for the European Parliament which has no duty, power or possibility of sustaining, forming or dismissing a government. The people— not in your Lordships' House but elsewhere— who will be most strongly opposed to the Bill are also those who would be strongly opposed to giving the European Parliament powers to control or dismiss an executive government of Europe.

The other argument which is sometimes strongly used against electoral reform is that it would break the identification of individual members with a relatively small individual constituency. As the German system has shown, that is a difficulty which can be substantially overcome. But in this case it cannot be argued that such an intimate link is there to be broken. Euro constituencies, by their very nature, have been too big for such an intimate relationship— the value of which I would not entirely deny— to have been built up. It will not amount to a qualitative difference, whether we have the fairly large constituencies which exist at present or whether we have somewhat larger constituencies, as would be necessary under the Bill.

In addition, in the case of the European Parliament we have a clear obligation to which we have several times put our signature as a nation to move towards a harmonised system of election. That obligation is in Article 138 of the Treaty of Rome to which we are signatories. It is fortified by the Single European Act to which we are also signatories.

Article 138 does not specify a proportional system, it specifies a common system. Eleven of the member states; have systems which vary somewhat but are all broadly proportional. We ourselves in a part of the United Kingdom have a proportional system because it is thought that balance is peculiarly necessary in that province. In the circumstances in which this is so, we can hardly think that it is a practical or reasonable proposition that the other 11 member states should be expected to harmonise around our rather eccentric and distorting system.

The common European system which may emerge, to judge from work currently being done in the European Parliament, could well leave a good deal to local variations. The juggernaut of Europe is likely to be fairly tame in this respect. But it will certainly be a common system of which proportionality will be the essence. That degree of harmonisation will be required. The proposal that we put forward is fully compatible with the work currently being done.

The important point which was powerfully made by the noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, with the great experience with which he speaks, is that we are not just misrepresenting our own electors. That could be argued— although I do not entirely accept it— to be exclusively our own business. But we are also distorting the shape of the European Parliament. Therefore it has a considerable adverse effect on an institution which is the common property of Europe as a whole. The approximately 5 per cent. swing from Conservative to Labour between 1984 and 1989 produced a large shift in the number of MEPs which set the Socialist group zooming into the lead position in the Parliament. That was just as the small Labour contingent of 1979 held it back artificially.

Equally, the so far permanent and total exclusion of the strongest Liberal vote in Europe in this country, as it has been throughout the election— the Liberal Democrat vote now— has weakened the ELD group in the Parliament and given the Communist group the undeserved third place among the groups in the Parliament. The Communists being in third place as a group is entirely due to the non-proportionate nature of the British electoral system.

These are not negligible consequences. By an act of imagination one can consider what view would be taken in the Parliament of the United Kingdom if for some historical reason one region of the country had remained with a franchise which was quite different from that of the rest of the kingdom but which altered the balance in the United Kingdom Parliament in a way that was of considerable importance. That would not be regarded as a matter of concern only to the particular region of the country which decided to act in that eccentric way.

I speak as the President of the European Commission at the time when the European Parliament was first directly elected, and continuing as President for the first two years of the directly elected Parliament's existence. My experience matches that of the noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, who saw the directly elected Parliament operating over a longer and later stage than I did but not as president and not right at the beginning. My experience marches almost exactly alongside his. I have no doubt at all that our voting system for that European Parliament damagingly increased our reputation for semi-detachment from Europe. That is a tremendous disadvantage to the country. It is one reason why our influence in Europe is not commensurate with that of Germany or France. It is because we are felt to be semi-detached, conditional, only half or three-quarter members. I have no doubt at all that the way to exercise influence in Europe, the way to play a part in the development of European institutions so that they develop in accordance with the interests of Europe, but also compatible with British national interests, is fully to participate in every aspect of the European game.

We are therefore in a position in which this modest, precise Bill is fair in purpose and likely to be beneficial to British interests in its results. Where all those factors come together, in my view it amounts to an overwhelming case for this small, modest but important Bill. I very much hope that it will not only receive a Second Reading in your Lordships' House today but will go forward from here to come into law in the near future.

12.57 p.m.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, first I must congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, on the way in which he has presented his Bill, and on the tremendous support he has received from other noble Lords in your Lordships' House. It is my job to endeavour so far as I can to explain the attitude of the Labour Party to the subject and to the Bill before us.

Other noble Lords may have received the same memorandum as I did from Mr. Andrew Duff in which he reviewed various events, and also set out an explanation as to why the Bill should be supported. That caused me to examine my own records at home. Apart from looking at Labour Party conference records, I examined others, particularly the case against proportional representation by the Fabian Society in 1924. I looked also at The Objections to Proportional Representation Answered published by the Proportional Representation Society in 1939 and the Hansard Society report to which reference has been made.

My noble friend Lord Houghton said that he was interested in hearing what I was going to say. My noble friend Lady Ewart-Biggs referred to the mania of those who oppose proportional representation and the paranoia of some of those who want it for everything. What few noble Lords may know— they may be doubtful about this in the light of other speeches I have made in your Lordships' House— is that way back in the early 1940s, as a delegate for my constituency party to the Labour Party conference in 1942 while I was on leave from the National Fire Service, I proposed on behalf of my constituency party a resolution advocating proportional representation. I did so because, first, I was a delegate and I carried out my party's democratic decisions; and, secondly, because I believed in the maximum representation of minorities that could be achieved.

Later, when one studied the matter carefully one had to recognise that we were first, dealing with the principles of PR; secondly, what system we should adopt; and, thirdly, the possible consequences. Reference has been made to the possible consequences. There was, first, the lack of constituency contact. What would happen if we had a party list? As a former national agent of the Labour Party I know what power the party list would have given me, and so I disliked that idea. I was interested in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Monson, who could see many arguments against PR in general although he saw arguments for its possible use in the European elections. I was pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, made clear that the Bill in no way affects the electoral system of the other place.

I shall go back a little. The 1976 Labour Party conference considered a document which set out the arguments for and against direct elections, because that matter had to be decided before we decided upon what system would be used. It also set out various options for consideration, and so there was no mania or paranoia in that document.

My noble friend Lady Ewart-Biggs referred to the White Paper issued by the Government in April 1977. That document set out three options for the electoral system which could be used at the first direct elections for the European Assembly, as it then was. I accept that it is now the European Parliament. The three options were: the simple majority system, the regional list system and the single transferable vote. The subsequent Labour Party conference received a report from the Parliamentary Labour Party which said that in the two-day debate on the White Paper in the other place there was little support for STV but significant support for the simple majority system and the regional list system. The Labour Government then brought forward in June 1977 the European Assembly Elections Bill which provided for a choice between those two systems.

The Bill was approved on Second Reading by an overwhelming majority of 247. Labour Members of Parliament were given a free vote on the principle of direct elections and the Prime Minister said that there would be a free vote for members of the Parliamentary Labour Party on the electoral system to be used when that issue came before the Committee. I shall refer to the possibility of a free vote before I conclude what I have to say.

However, before the Bill could proceed further, preparations had to be made for the first direct elections to be held in 1979, and the Bill was dropped. Hence we had the 1978 European Act, and the Boundary Commission started work to recommend the 66 constituencies for England, eight for Scotland and four for Wales. They were all single member constituencies to be elected by the first-past-the-post system. At that time I attended a number of meetings of the Community Elections Committee and the Socialist Group in Brussels and Strasbourg. As the Labour Party national agent I set to work to set up European constituency organisations. I believe that we were the first party to set up the whole constituency organisation system for the European elections. We laid down accountability in the rules. Each European constituency organisation had to have at least two meetings a year of its delegate organisation and executive committee. That was regarded as a vital consideration.

The subsequent elections were due to take place in 1984. This point has not been referred to by any noble Lord this morning, but your Lordships may recall that your Select Committee on the European Communities decided to consider the European Parliament's proposals for a uniform electoral procedure for those elections.

I have refreshed my memory in the past few days by reading that excellent report. After hearing some preliminary evidence, the Select Committee decided to set up an ad hoc sub-committee. I have the list of its members. The noble Baroness, Lady Seear, and I were members of the committee and the noble Baroness, Lady White, was the chairman. At the outset the Select Committee accepted the view that, Proportional representation is not the name for a single electoral system but a generic term denoting a number of different systems". The Select Committee's conclusion was: The fundamental issue is whether to adhere to our traditional system or adopt some form of proportional representation for European elections rather than the choice of a specific electoral system". I fully appreciate that a number of noble Lords have stressed that no other member state followed Britain's plurality system (first-past-the-post); nevertheless, no common system was adopted by the member states. There may be various types of PR, but no common system has been adopted and it has been stressed that one may not be adopted now.

The noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, has confirmed that the Bill seeks to adopt the system used in Northern Ireland. That is made clear by the explanation of the first clause. However, I have always stressed that it is what is written in the Bill that matters, not what people say. When the STV system was first introduced in Northern Ireland for the local elections and for the Northern Ireland Assembly and the European elections, it was made clear that that would not be held as justifying the use of the system in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Some noble Lords may recall that I have said in previous debates in the House that I looked carefully at two general elections conducted in Eire. In some cases the STV system was followed. In some cases as many as six, seven or even eight counts had to be conducted where surplus votes were dropped off or the votes of members at the bottom were lifted up. On a number of occasions we found that candidates who often did well in the first election with the first preferences were not elected, whereas others who did not do too well in the first vote became the elected candidates because of the transfer of votes. That was one of my greatest criticisms of what I saw in two elections in the Republic of Ireland.

The Bill provides quite clearly for a system of multi-member constituencies. It is no use saying that the Bill allows us to adopt whichever system we like. It will, if amendments are moved in Committee. However, it lays down quite clearly that there will be multi-member constituencies. I wonder what the Scots will think of their 72 Commons constituencies becoming a single constituency to elect eight MEPs, or the Welsh of their 38 parliamentary constituencies becoming a single constituency returning four MEPs. In England, where the 523 parliamentary constituencies are divided into 66 European constituencies, under the Bill there would be just nine constituencies to elect 66 MEPs.

Those are the factors which have not been mentioned but which have to be considered if we are to discuss the system which the Bill lays down. The Bill goes far beyond proposing a system of proportional representation.

The Labour Party is considering very carefully possible changes in the electoral system for the various institutions. Noble Lords will know that the recent Scottish Labour Party conference decided that there should be a wide-ranging survey of the systems that might be adopted for the Scottish assembly elections when that body is established. I saw a report that the leader of the Liberal Democrats believed that there should be flexibility regarding the system to be adopted. Therefore, there should not be a firm adherence to what the Liberal Democrats have proposed regarding STV.

Before I close perhaps I may quote two statements from Labour's policy review document— Meet the Challenge— Make the Change. I must here make a party political point. I heard the chairman of the Conservative Party say this morning that the Labour Party had put forward no policies in the Mid-Staffordshire by-election. I have in my case an 88-page document which sets out our final review statement on all aspects of Labour Party policy for the next election. That document was presented to the Labour Party conference last October and given general approval. However, so that noble Lords can refer to it I shall quote from page 55 of the document. It reads: The form of election to the new second chamber will be a matter for further consideration, but, because of its nature, it may be appropriate to adopt a scheme different from that by which Members of Parliament are elected". Noble Lords may know that I was critical of the proposals for the reform of the second chamber.

Referring to Scottish and other suggested regional assemblies, on page 58 the document states: The form of election to the regional assemblies is a matter for further consideration". Following the Labour Party conference in Scotland recently, on 12th March, in an editorial dealing with the decision at the conference, the Glasgow Herald said: Commitment to a particular system would clearly be premature at this stage. It is obvious that a lot of homework has to be done first, and that the educational process should not be confined to the party". The editorial concluded: In any case the Labour Party is already examining PR systems as part of a broader programme of constitutional change". I am informed that the next Labour Party conference in October will be asked to set up a working party to consider the form of elections to those bodies and other institutions. Those inquiries could include the method of election to the European Parliament. I understand that it will be suggested that there could be different systems for the different institutions. Therefore, so far as concerns the Labour Party, that is a matter which the party is considering very deeply. Members may smile, but it is far better to consider carefully what you are going to do before jumping in with a system which may not be workable or deciding that a common system will be adopted. It might be better to have a different system for elections to the House of Commons, the Scottish and Welsh assemblies, the regional assemblies which we propose and the European Parliament. On the other hand, there might be a common system.

Therefore, I cannot recommend to my friends to determine whether or not to accept the Bill as it stands today. When it comes to Committee stage I hope that we shall be able to give my noble friends a free vote, as the Prime Minister promised when the subject was raised in 1977, first, because this a Private Member's Bill, and, secondly, because the Labour Party itself has yet to work out its eventual policy. By the time the Bill reaches Committee stage we may still be in the process of working towards those decisions.

1.16 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers):

My Lords, we have had a fascinating debate. As I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, I tried to fathom on which side of the fence he would fall. As he castigated my right honourable friend the chairman of the Conservative Party for saying that the Labour Party had not put forward any clear views in Staffordshire, I thought if it had put them forward as clearly as the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, had put the Labour Party's attitude to the Bill it was not surprising that my right honourable friend made that speech.

I must congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, on having introduced a Bill which has secured an astonishing amount of apparent unanimity from those who participated in the debate— apart from the noble Lord, Lord Underhill. I have dreaded the debate, not because I dreaded the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, but because I dreaded the thought of trying to understand proportional representation. As I prepared myself for the debate I found that my apprehension was not unfounded. The noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, said that she was in favour of the Bill because it was simple. Whatever the merits of the Bill and the alternative voting system, simplicity is not one of them. It is a very complicated system.

I was interested that the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, succeeded in working the poll tax into the debate on the Bill. I could not think what its relevance was, and I particularly liked the way in which he introduced the subject. He said that he did not really want to introduce discussion of the poll tax but nevertheless he thought that he ought to do such and such, and promptly introduced it.

It is only fair to tell the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter— I know that it will come as no surprise to him— that the Government cannot support the Bill. However, I can put him out of his misery immediately and say that the Government have no intention of voting against it. The Government's position on proportional representation is well known. We have always made clear that we have no plans to introduce any form of proportional representation for local government elections in Great Britain, or for elections in the United Kingdom to another place.

The first-past-the-post system may not be perfect but it is simple. It is familiar and it is easily understood simply on the basis that he or she who gets more votes, even just one more, wins. It is much more likely to produce an overall majority for one party to provide strong and effective government, at either local or national level. The question which is asked of the voter is simple. It is: what person and what party do you want to represent you, either in Parliament or on the Council? Proportional representation is, however, far more difficult. Those who advocate it say that it gives a fairer balance of view in Parliament. I was glad that the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, referred to the Select Committee which said that proportional representation is not one system. There are about 20 different forms of the system in practice and each form provides a different answer in each case. Therefore proportional representation as a system is not strictly comparable with the first-past-the-post system, as proportional representation is in fact a variety of widely differing alternatives.

It is, therefore, a misconception to say, as the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, indicated, that proportional representation as a system is fairer. Each proportional representation system may throw up a different parliamentary result. However, all the alternatives cannot be fairer. They are all different. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, who said very fairly, openly and correctly that no system is perfect.

Proportional representation, in whatever form it takes, often results in some form of coalition based on a programme which the electorate has not in fact had the opportunity to approve and, indeed, of which it may disapprove. Voters can only guess what kind of coalition their party might have to enter into after an election, what new policies it might have to adopt and what compromises it might have to make in order to keep the coalition in existence. Furthermore, in a coalition parties which poll few votes can exercise an influence out of all proportion to the number of people who voted for them, and they can keep on exercising that influence notwithstanding the fact that they keep on coming low down in the poll.

Your Lordships may consider that these arguments apply with less force, or that they do not even apply at all, in the context of elections to the European Parliament. It can be argued— my noble friend Lord Cockfield used this argument— that the European Parliament is not a legislative body, and that its functions and powers are different from those of another place, or of any other national parliament. The role of its members, it can be said, is different, and the constituencies are much larger. A member of the European Parliament does not and cannot represent his or her constituents in quite the same way as his or her counterpart at Westminster. The link is therefore more tenuous. So the argument might run.

Others, however, might point to the fact that elections to the European Parliament in one part of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, are already held under the system which the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, would like to see extended to the rest of the United Kingdom.

I should like to turn to the question of Northern Ireland for a moment. First, I shall explain why I am not convinced that elections to the European Parliament are so different from those to another place that they could, or should, be held under a different system. It is true that European parliamentary constituencies are large. In most cases they consist of seven or eight United Kingdom parliamentary constituencies. But they still cover a manageable geographical area which, in most cases, electors can recognise and with which they can readily identify. Those areas constitute, for example, a city, a county or part of a county.

Under the arrangements which are proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, in his Bill, we would have only 11 European parliamentary constituencies to cover the whole of Great Britain instead of 78 as at present. That would completely destroy any notion of local representation. It would also make it much more difficult for a member of the European Parliament to identify with his or her constituency— of which he or she would be but one of a number of representatives— or to retain links with his or her constituents. I imagine that at least some United Kingdom members of the European Parliament see their role, not just as part of a European political grouping, but as representatives who are well placed to further the local interests of the area for which they were elected.

The European Parliament is often seen as remote from the people who elect its members and not only geographically. Many electors in this country have little or no idea what the European Parliament is or what it does. Many do not know the name of their MEP and even those who do know often have only the vaguest notion as to what his or her job is. That is regrettable, although I have no doubt that the situation will improve as the Parliament takes a more active role in European affairs and becomes better known.

The arrangements which are proposed in this Bill, by destroying the direct one-to-one relationship between a Member of the Parliament and the recognisable geographical area which he or she represents, would, if anything, tend to make the MEP an even more remote and more faceless individual.

In Northern Ireland, the single transferable vote system was used as long ago as the 1920s. The elections to the Stormont Parliament in 1921 and 1925 used the single transferable vote system, although it was abolished for the 1929 and subsequent elections. More recently, the single transferable vote was introduced for the Northern Ireland local government elections of 1973 and the Northern Ireland Assembly elections of the same year. It has been used ever since for local government and now also European parliamentary elections in the Province.

The noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, may say that as it is used in Northern Ireland why not let the United Kingdom use it in the European elections. That seeems a plausible argument on the face of it. However, there is a very special reason for using it in Northern Ireland. The reason is the sectarian nature of Northern Ireland society and political life. The divided community, each side of which votes on both religious and political lines, makes the simple majority system unsuitable there.

There is, therefore, a strong case for an electoral system for European parliamentary elections in Northern Ireland which is likely to lead to the election of three members who together represent the great majority of those voting at European elections. I see no similar case for adopting the system which is used there in the rest of the United Kingdom, where the special and indeed unique circumstances of Northern Ireland do not apply.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, I hope the noble Earl will forgive me for interrupting, but is he saying that it is not necessary for the representatives from the rest of the United Kingdom to represent the views of all the people?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am sorry but I do not follow the argument of the noble Lord.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, the Minister said that the system was introduced in Northern Ireland because it was able to represent the views of all the people. Is he saying that it is not necessary to represent the views of all the people when it comes to the rest of the United Kingdom?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, has a unique and mischievous way of suggesting statements that he knows perfectly well I have never made. I said that the conditions in Northern Ireland were particularly unique and that those conditions made the system which operates there suitable. I said that in my view and the view of the Government it was not a suitable system to operate elsewhere.

The European Parliament has, for some time, been pressing for the introduction of a uniform electoral procedure throughout the Community. Indeed, the European Community Treaty requires the Parliament to draw up proposals for such a procedure. It also requires the Council of Ministers, acting unanimously, to recommend the appropriate provisions to the member states for adoption. In 1982 the Parliament adopted proposals for uniform procedure which was based on a report from its political affairs committee. The proposals were for a list system of proportional representation with multi-member constituencies. The trouble was that these proposals proved highly controversial and most member states understandably were reluctant to move from their own system which they understood and which they not unnaturally thought was the best.

Those proposals would have required changes to the procedures of all the member states and they raised substantial difficulties for several of them. Those difficulties could not be overcome in time for the 1984 elections. I am bound to tell your Lordships that there has been no significant progress since then towards the introduction of a uniform electoral procedure, although the Parliament has expressed the view that the 1989 elections should be the last to be held under national provisions.

In all the different systems that are used by member states, none of them, other than the Rebublic of Ireland, uses the system which the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, proposes that we should use. If we were to adopt his proposals, we should only complicate the system yet further.

My noble friend Lord Cockfield said that adoption of this Bill would be a move toward a common form of electoral system. But the procedures for election to the European Parliament vary widely between member states. All except the United Kingdom, which uses the simple majority system, and the Republic of Ireland, which uses the single transferable vote system, use list systems of proportional representation. But they too are of many different kinds. Some use regional multi-member constituencies. Others use national lists. Some allocate seats proportionately within regions; others at national level. Some allow the voters to choose between different candidates of the same party, and so on. Therefore proportional representation provides a kaleidoscope of alternatives. It does not of itself provide uniformity.

I was glad that my noble friend Lord Cockfield took the opportunity to refer to the work of Members of the European Parliament. I should like to reinforce his remarks. They work very hard, often at most inconvenient times; they travel a great deal and their work is often unsung. They get very few thanks and most people do not understand what they do. But their work is of enormous benefit to Europe and for the concept of a united Europe.

We do not know what fresh proposals will emerge from the European Parliament, if indeed there are any, before the next European parliamentary elections in 1994, It is, however, highly unlikely that any proposed new procedure will be based on the single transferable vote system. Of the member states, only the Republic of Ireland uses that system.

The Government will consider on its merits any recommendations for a uniform procedure from the Council of Ministers. Until then I suggest that we have a system which is familiar and which— although I doubt whether the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, would agree— suits us best. Were we to adopt the proposals in the noble Lord's Bill we should have a system which was not only different from that for electing Members to another place and from that for local government elections throughout Great Britain. We should have a system which would also be different from any system used in the other member states save one.

If a uniform procedure were eventually to be adopted, we should almost certainly have to change our own system for a second time. I believe that noble Lords would agree that that would be a pretty disageeable prospect. Although, as I indicated, the Government cannot support this Bill, we shall not seek to deny it a Second Reading. However, I am afraid that for the reasons which I have given, I should not be able to offer the noble Lord assistance from this Bench either now or at a later stage. But I doubt whether the noble Lord expected anything different from that.

1.33 p.m.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, after this longish debate I hope that noble Lords will not expect me to reply in detail to the arguments put forward by either the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, or the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers. However, I should like to thank all noble Lords who have participated in this debate— with a rare degree of unanimity, save for the last two noble Lords to whom I referred— for the cogency of their speeches and the strength of their arguments. I hope that the noble Earl will read them as he has listened to them. They constitute a very powerful set of pleas for something which seems to me to be gaining in support. The review of this matter which the Labour Party is undertaking is encouraging. It means that one will look once more at this issue.

The noble Earl made two points which have not been tackled, so to speak, by earlier speakers. He put a good deal of weight on the size of the constituencies that would be formed under the system suggested in the Bill. He suggested that it would be difficult for people to have any sense of local identification in constituencies of that size. Perhaps I could refer him to the United States, Senators there have constituencies which are as big or bigger. The senators' identification with their states is very powerful. In fact sometimes they are accused of being too locally identified in their politics.

Secondly, the noble Earl said that proportional representation represents a variety of different systems. Of course it does. We have suggested one which is practised by one state in the European Community. The point about our system compared with the other systems used in the Community is that ours is not proportional. All of their systems are proportional in principle. They differ in means but they are proportional in principle. That, I suspect, is what the Commission and the committee which is examining this matter will propose. Therefore I do not think that it would in any way complicate our affairs— indeed it will be a step forward— if we adopt a single transferable vote system.

I repeat that the Bill is so constructed that Parliament can approve the principle for proportional representation in regional constituencies without committing itself to the single transferable vote system. That is not, therefore, what people are being asked to do.

I should like once more to thank noble Lords for participating in this debate and thank them for the support given to this Bill. I commend it to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.